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Managing your time

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

The university suggests that you spend 30-35 hours a week on study (including time spent in lectures, seminars, lab work, independent study etc). Of course these hours don't have to be from Monday to Friday between 9am and 6pm - you might study in the evenings or at weekends, and spend time during the week on other commitments. However for many students (especially those that have other commitments like placements, family, or paid work) that still feels as if they need a lot more time than they have available.

This guide looks at ways to use your time more effectively to maximise the time you have for study, and help you to achieve a better work/life balance. 

How do you use your time?

Where does all the time go? To use your time more effectively in the future, you first need to work out how you spend it now. Consider this, for instance:

In one week there are 7 x 24 hours = 168 hours
Subtract 8 hours a day for sleeping = 112 hours
Subtract another 3 hours a day for eating, bathing etc = 91 hours
Subtract 35 hours a week for study commitments = 56 hours

That means 8 hours a day for keeping fit, socialising, household chores, paid work, family commitments etc.

Of course, this is a simplified way of looking at time - it assumes, for instance that you study for the same amount of time 7 days a week. To get a more personalised version, try the interactive time use calculator from Virginia Tech (link below).

Or keep a time-use diary. Draw up a grid with 24 squares (6 rows x 4 columns, for instance). You can download a grid to work out your use of time below. Start now and list the things you do each hour in a square. Keep it up for 24 hours to find out how you're actually spending your time. (You'll get an even better picture if you can do it for a few days.)

You may find you need to make your time work harder for you to have a better work/life balance. That means working more effectively, checking what you need to prioritise, and seeing if there is anything that you can cut out.

For instance:

  • Are you spending too much time reading? Or re-writing notes?
  • Chatting with friends over coffee? Or on social media?
  • Wasting time when writing a coursework assignment because you can't get started?

To develop your skills for studying so you don't waste time trying to work out how to do something, see the Study Advice website for a list of our guides, video tutorials, and seminars. Everyone works differently, so if you want to discuss how you might use your study time more effectively, book a one-to-one session with a Study Adviser.

Working more efficiently

Developing more effective study practices can save lots of time – and improve your marks. Try some of these suggestions:

Break large tasks into manageable chunks. Setting out to achieve one small task at a time is much less daunting than starting a huge project. Make lists and mark each task off as you do it for a visual reminder that it is getting done.
Thinking time counts as study time! Your brain needs some time when you're not reading or writing to process information. And you can do thinking anywhere – walking to campus, in the gym, cooking.
Keep complex tasks for your best thinking time. Be aware of when you work best – for most people it's in the morning, but everyone is different. Try to do more difficult tasks (writing, reading a complicated article) at your best times. Keep more routine tasks for other times.
Do focused/active reading. Think about what you want from your reading before you start. Make yourself a list of questions and look for the answers. Having targets will help you to focus and avoid those 'I don't remember a word I've just read' moments.

Stop reading earlier. You don't have time to read everything on the reading list, nor are you expected to. Read enough to give you a clear understanding. If you're writing an assignment and you need to find out more, you can do more reading to fill in the gaps once you've written your first draft and you know what you need to add.

Reading for a lecture may be more useful after the lecture than before. Unless the lecture is all about a specific text, you are likely to understand reading better afterwards, so reading will take less time and be more productive.
Reading for a seminar is always more useful before the seminar than after! Seminars are where you have a chance to ask questions and develop your understanding of a subject. To get the most out of a seminar, you have to feel able to take part.
If you don't understand your reading, take a step back. Reading it over again is not likely to make you understand it. Ask yourself what is preventing you from understanding it – is there another piece of information you need? Is there something else that you need to understand first? Ask if you need help – you won't be the only one
If the books you need are not in the Library, know where to find alternatives. Online journals are always available - search for articles on Summon. Use Enterprise to find other books on the same topic. If you must have a particular title, don't wait - reserve it. Use online resources, but always consider if they are appropriate for academic work. If you need help, ask a librarian. And check to see if your department has its own library.
Don't re-write your notes – do them right the first time! Think about what you want to find out before you start reading, leave the pen on the table and only pick it up when something's worth noting.

Always plan before you write. This always saves time - even in the exam room. You may think that you are saving a few minutes by writing without a plan, but you will spend far more time wondering what to write next, and your writing will be muddled and unclear.

Keep things simple. Use the five point plan: intro, point 1, point 2, point 3, conclusion. An essay plan need only be five words long. A brief presentation could be five slides, which double up as speaker's notes. It's always better to discuss fewer things in more depth.

Prioritising your tasks

In your busy periods when you have a lot of work due at once, you will need to work out what needs to be prioritised. Write a list of the things you think you need to do, then mark each up as 'Do now', 'Do soon', 'Do later' or 'Don't do'.

Here is an example:

Do now reading for tomorrow's seminar
send off CV
Do soon finish essay due end of week
do food shopping
phone Mum
Do later background reading
sort out what's happening this Saturday
Don't do go to committee meeting – get someone else to let me know what happened instead.

You may well find that the things you put off till later turn into things that someone else has already done, or that you don't need to do at all.

Remember - you only have a short time at university. You've worked hard to get here and you deserve to have the time to do your best. So be nice to yourself and learn to say no sometimes.